Expats and backpackers exhaled a collective sigh of relief in February 2013 when we all spotted the first Visa ATMs being placed around Yangon. Would this be the end of having to carefully look after our US dollar notes in order to be able to exchange them for kyat?
The first time we exchanged dollars, they only accepted four out of seven bills that we thought were all perfect; the bills that the money-changers accept must truly be of mint condition quality. Small bend from your wallet? No exchange for you. I’ve heard about people travelling for months and months with the crispest US$100 bills they could find; they’ve been painstakingly placed within books and tenderly manoeuvred around for months on the backpacker trail. But are these days over? Perhaps not quite yet.
Having the images of the new ATMs fresh in my mind, flying back to Yangon in March this year I returned with no concerns about exchanging money. I walked off the plane, past the 30-plus people waiting to exchange their currency for kyat at counters, and right up to one of the two airport ATMs waiting vacant and lonely before the exit into the country.
People muttered about not even knowing there were ATMs in Burma as I put my card into the machine and entered my pin — to receive the response of ERROR. The connection broke and I was told it would take up to a half hour before it would work again; even that seemed a bit optimistic. Pompous energy drained out of me and I waddled with my bags over to the second machine, the crowd watching on. I punched in the numbers again, and it asked how many kyat I would like, from 5,000 up to 300,000. No feeling of smugness at this point; just pure relief.
This scenario seems to be common around Yangon, as I’ve often encountered non-working machines, though others here do say they’ve never encountered a problem. ATM fees are about US$5-6 per withdrawal but there are stories of poor exchange rates while using ATMs, and don’t forget that your own bank might charge a fee as well. Make sure to find out this information ahead of time. So far, we’ve found 300,000 kyat to be the maximum withdrawal amount offered at a single time.
Another warning: you HAVE to press ‘cancel’ to end the transaction at these ATMs to get your card back. Once you’ve got your receipt and money in hand and are excited to head off exploring, it can be easy to forget your card. Banks have caught on to this issue and have put up signs that say they will hold on to your card if it is left behind, so if you do forget yours, it is worth trying to retrieve it when the bank’s open.
New ATMs pop up weekly at banks of all names, but if you’re having trouble finding any, just southeast of Sule Pagoda is a higher concentration of ATMs. My advice though is that you should also always have a backup plan and still carry those crisp, blemish-free bills just in case something goes wrong with your card — hope for the best, plan for the worst.
By Christopher Smith
Last updated on 19th June, 2013.